The Bell & Howell 2709 is a very old camera. In this case, the one I’m looking through turned 90 last May. It still works perfectly, something that I don’t think I’ll be able to say of many modern cameras in 10 or 20 years time. I don’t have anything against modern cameras–I like most of them, and they’ve become much more filmic over the years so I have much less to complain about than I used to–but there’s something about handling a precision-made mechanical camera that’s just magical.
It’s also terrifying.
I’m touching this camera because I’ve volunteered to participate in a silent film production produced by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, CA. The camera is owned by film historian and former video engineer Sprague Anderson, who is an expert at hand-cranking the camera at its silent film standard speed of 16fps. The director of photography is Steve Kotten, director of multimedia at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. He and Sprague have worked together a lot over the years on a wide variety of projects, and I knew them both when I freelanced for Pacific Video Resources, a production/post facility they both worked at back in the ’90s.
When I volunteered for the project I decided that I would offer my skills as camera assistant. I haven’t assisted professionally in 20 years, but some things you never forget. My training as a camera assistant taught me to constantly scan the camera for anything that might be set wrong, or for anything that I might have missed, and that kind of awareness has served me well as I transitioned from film into digital. Today, instead of checking “focus/aperture/shutter/tachometer” (FAST, which is a great way of remembering the immediate things that must be checked on a film camera as it starts to roll on a take) to “focus/waveform/shutter/codec” (or FWSC, which makes no sense at all). My earliest video projects, and even some modern ones, see me being a one man camera department, and that kind of consistent paranoia ensures that everything I shoot is usable in the edit.
As a DP I’ve turned those skills into what I call “cinematographer zen”: I can stand on a set and be aware of everything that’s going on around me, particularly in regard to lighting. At home I’m hopeless and have no clue what’s happening around me, but you can’t get anything past me on a film set.
When I first set hands on Sprague’s 2709 he told me there are 21 things to do or check before rolling the camera for a take, and number 21 is to scream “Arrrrrrrrrrgh!” at the end of doing all of it. Honestly, I started to wonder how silent movies got made. The camera is amazingly complex, and yet camera persons of the era were consistently able to capture amazing imagery. When I mentioned this to Sprague he said, “If you use the camera every day for weeks on end you get pretty good with it.” Sure, but how do you learn to be good with it without making rookie mistakes than cost you the opportunity to work with it again?
Just loading the mag was a bit of a challenge. In my early days I loaded hundreds of Mitchell mags when I assisted on both visual effects shoots and sitcoms (many sitcoms in the early ’90s were still being shot on studio-owned Mitchell BNCR cameras) and the Bell & Howell mag is similar except for one detail: there’s a light trap in the throat of the mag that has to be opened in order to pass film into and out of the mag. Oh, and it can’t be opened except in total darkness because–you guessed it–the light trap keeps light from fogging the film. Later magazines, like Mitchell and Panavision mags, had light traps that didn’t have an actual door: they consisted of staggered black velvet edges that the film wound through but that light couldn’t penetrate. Those mags are easy to load. The Bell & Howell has a tool that must be employed in a changing bag or darkroom to open the light traps and allow film to be threaded. It was a pain to learn to do this.
I was quite surprised when Sprague showed me that the mag doors had to be screwed all the way shut–and then unscrewed by 1/8 turn. This is to prevent them from welding themselves shut when they expand in the summer heat.
The camera itself is vastly more complex. Seating the film in the gate is a bit of a task as one has to wiggle it around until the spring-loaded registration pins fall into place. There are no guides as to how far into the gate the film must be inserted, and the movement doesn’t retract from the gate to give one a view of what’s going on. Panavision cameras have a pin above the film gate that helps align the film with the registration pins when you stick it through a film perf, but this camera doesn’t.
The most interesting, and terrifying, part of this camera is the optical system. The lenses are on a turret, and one must constantly rotate the lenses from one side of the turret to the other because the camera does not have a reflex viewfinder. This means that during the take the operator can see only through the side finder that sits on the side of the camera, and this must be calibrated horizontally so that it’s looking at the same thing that the taking lens is.
More about that on page 2…
The round thing in front of the lens is a kind of matte box, but it incorporates an iris in order to do live wipe effects.
In the photo above I’m looking through a prism on the “dumb” side of the camera that lets me see through the taking lens. The camera sits on a sliding baseplate that allows it to move side to side. The matte box is mounted to the base plate. When a lens is chosen the camera is moved to the left side of the baseplate while the lens is rotated to the right side of the turret so the assistant can look through it to focus. That’s what I’m doing above.
After I focus the lens and aim the camera so the crosshairs in the finder fall on a horizontal reference point on the plane of action, I rotate the turret so the taking lens is on the left, in front of the film gate, and pull the camera right along the sliding baseplate so it is aimed through the matte box again. Then I go to the parallax finder on the left side of the camera and aim it so that the crosshairs fall on the same horizontal reference point. Now, in theory, the operator will have an idea of what’s in frame when using that lens and shooting a subject that’s as far away as my horizontal reference was.
Film historian Sprague Anderson stands in with a slate as I focus the taking lens. An important part of the process is making sure the taking lens and the side finder are pointed in the right direction. The button just under the mag is a hole punch: in the early days of filmmaking the labs could handle only 200′ of film at a time, so it was typical to punch a hole in the negative at the end of each scene so that it could be separated for processing.
Rotating the turret is easy. Rotating it without bumping the lens is harder. You see, the lenses don’t sit in their mounts the way modern lenses do: they screw in, and the back focus distance varies every time the lens is put on or taken because it’s almost never screwed in to the same depth twice. This means the focus marks on the lens are rough guides at best, and focus must be set by eye.
The trick is that most of the lens barrel rotates in order to focus, while an additional ring at the end of the lens changes the f-stop. Sometimes the f-stop ring sticks to the focus ring, so that setting the f-stop can change the focus unless the focus ring is held in place or taped off. If the focus gets bumped then we have to repeat the focusing process where the lens is moved right, the camera left, and we can peer through it and check focus. Then we need to move everything back without bumping anything.
While focusing it’s important to make sure the matte box doesn’t vignette, as that could prove embarrassing later. This is hard to do because the prism viewfinder used for focusing has a hot spot in the center of it, which makes the edges go dark. It’s a little nerve-wracking to look for a dark matte box around the edges of a dark viewfinder image.
At some point we’re going to practice in-camera dissolves, which are terrifying things. The camera shutter is opened and closed by hand, often over the course of four seconds, and after the first half of the dissolve is completed you have one chance to get the rest of the dissolve right. In the silent film classic “Wings” there’s a series of flashback dissolves that are executed perfectly, all in different locations and in one sequence, and when one considers that the cameraperson had one chance to get each dissolve right at each location the whole thing becomes mind boggling.
In my early years, when I assisted on cameras like the Arriflex BL3/BL4/35-3 and the Panavision Panaflex G2 I’d check the shutter once in a while to make sure it hadn’t moved, and I’d make sure the stop was set properly when the camera rolled. The camera readout told me if the camera was running at speed and then all I had to worry about was focus. Indeed, focus was the only thing that I had to worry about in dailies if those other settings were done properly.
On this camera, though, there’s no way to know if the camera was even framed properly until the film is developed, and these days it can take a week or two to get “dailies” back from one of the two labs in the U.S. that develop black-and-white stock. There’s clearly no such thing as being too paranoid when working with this camera.
Director of photography Steve Kotten frames a shot while I focus the taking lens.
We shot lens tests the other day, and it will be a while before the dailies are processed. Maybe after I see that everything is sharp and framed properly I can breathe a bit easier. Meanwhile, today’s assistants have things both easier and more difficult: digital camera readouts are generally easier to read and offer more detail than analog cameras do, but digital cameras also have settings within settings within settings that have to be set properly at levels deep in the menus. Mistakes are less likely to happen because the image can be viewed right there on set, but there are other errors that can crop up that aren’t visible on set but that will make post a very expensive proposition.
I’m going to have a lot of fun assisting on this short silent film. I’m glad, though, that I haven’t worked professionally as a camera assistant in a long, long time. I have more fun creating images than obsessing over camera settings. I still have my old assisting skills, but I’m generally happier letting someone else worry about whether the equipment is working properly. In this case, though, it’ll be fun to be hands on with a piece of cinematic history–and to see if I have what it takes to work in the silent film era, should it ever return. (Hey, 3D came back…)
This is why I try to be considerate of my camera assistants. I have some idea of what they go through, and I’m happy to make their lives less stressful when I can. That means they’ll be less stressed when I do need them to come through on a tough shot. I beat on my assistants only when necessary.
Art Adams is a DP who tries to work silently even if the camera runs loudly. His website is at www.artadamsdp.com.